The news flashed quickly through the ranks of Iraqi police guarding a quarter-mile stretch of Abi Nawwas Street, passing from walkie-talkie to walkie-talkie until it reached Hussein Muhsim. Muhsim, who was sitting on a chair with an assault rifle on his lap, leapt into the air when he heard the voice crackle over the radio. All around him, guards were jumping up and down, pumping their fists and shouting, "Goal! Goal! Goal!"
Iraq had scored its first goal in what would be a 2-1 victory Monday over rival Saudi Arabia in the Asian Cup soccer tournament, the first major competition for the Iraqi national team since the U.S. invasion last year.
"We put our hopes on this team," said Muhsim, 28, who plays soccer for his neighborhood team in Baghdad. "I wish I was in the stadium to see it live -- if you can get me to China," where the tournament is being held.
The match against Saudi Arabia was broadcast live here on radio and television, and it captivated the capital city for nearly two hours as fans stopped working, closed their shops and abandoned the streets to watch or listen to the game. When Iraq beat the three-time Asian Cup champion, advancing to the quarterfinals against China, celebratory gunfire rang out around the city. The typically staid al-Jazeera satellite TV network broke away from its newscast to show the final moments of the game. Shortly after, it returned to footage of the competition to announce that the Saudi coach had been fired.
Iraqis have always taken pride in their soccer team and in the game, which boys play in the dusty streets almost as soon as they can walk. But support for the national squad is particularly intense during this Asian Cup, which follows a 15-month occupation in which Iraqis saw virtually every aspect of their lives being run by foreigners. Recent weeks of car bombings and assassinations have also unsettled the country.
Though some Iraqis said on Monday that the violence surrounding them made it difficult to focus on a sporting event, many said there was no question that watching their team defeat Saudi Arabia -- a neighbor and rival, both in soccer and in politics -- and Turkmenistan has brought a measure of pride to this broken country.
The sidewalks in the busy Karada district of central Baghdad were nearly deserted around 3 p.m. local time, when the match started. Athir Butris, 26, sat in one of his black leather chairs in his barber shop and stared at the TV set mounted in a corner.
"We have a great team, and Iraqis are known as lovers of soccer," Butris said. "When there is an Iraqi game, the streets are empty of people. They are all gathering and watching TV. We don't work."
Iraq's Asian Cup team is made up primarily of members of the country's Olympic team, the only athletes Iraq is sending to the Games in Athens next month. Iraq earned a spot in the Olympics by beating Saudi Arabia in May in Jordan, where Iraq has been forced to play its home games because the U.S. military took over its stadium in Baghdad to use as a parking lot for tanks.
Firas Salem, 24, who works for Butris, said he liked watching the new Iraqi team. The players, he said, were performing much differently than in the days when Saddam Hussein's oldest son, Uday, was the kingpin of Iraqi sports and would jail or torture players after a bad match.
"They used to fear when they played," he said. "It wasn't sport. Now they play for their own interest."
Just before the second half, two customers came into the barber shop. Not wanting to the lose the business on a quiet, beastly hot afternoon, Butris and Salem picked up their clippers. They trimmed and cut as the game played in the background. When the announcer's voice grew loud or excited, they stopped their combs in midair and looked up at the television.
Abdul Samad Abdul Jabbar, 35, who sat in Salem's chair, said he had not been following the soccer team closely. "The violence we have every day makes us psychologically tired," Abdul Jabbar said. "We can't concentrate on sports."
He mostly ignored the game, even as Salem stopped to watch. But when Iraq scored its first goal, all the men glanced up and cheered, throwing up their hands in celebration, as the announcer repeated, "Goal! Goal! Goal!"
At a clothing and shoe store down the street, owner Khalid Ahmed and two friends who had come to watch the game barely glanced up when a potential customer came in.
"If there is a disaster outside, we don't care," said a man sitting on the floor who gave his name as Kamal. "We just want to watch the game, even if there is a bomb. This game for us is very important."
In a shirt shop next door, five men clustered around another TV set. Omar, a young man in black jeans and a white shirt, said he came to the shop to watch because he did not have electricity at his house. His friend, Hassanen, said he left work early to watch the game. "Saddam, he is not here anymore, and they can play without fear," he said. "Before, our players suffered very much."
Ali, 15, who watched the game with them, said he was grateful Hussein was gone. "God willing, our team will be the best one," he said. "The important thing now is our players will never have to put Saddam's picture on their shirts."
Without television or radio, the guards back at the checkpoints on Abi Nawwas Street had to rely on updates from drivers whose cars they stopped. As he opened the door of a yellow car to inspect it, Muhsim heard the game on the radio and asked excitedly if the driver or passengers knew who had scored the first goal for Iraq.
Muhsim, a slender man with a neatly trimmed beard who wore the blue uniform of the Iraqi police, said he didn't mind having to scavenge for news of the match.
"It's like the players," he said, his voice becoming solemn. "They have a duty in the stadium. I have a duty in the checkpoint."
Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki and Luma Faruq contributed to this report.